A Texas Ranger, it was famously claimed, “can ride like a Mexican, trail like an Indian, shoot like a Tennessean, and fight like a very devil.” These days, such a bland presumption of ethnic attributes would merit a visit from the Sensitivity Police, and even respect for martial skills verges on political incorrectness, since progressive Americans must tolerate such skills, if at all, only among those deemed military or police “professionals.” The early Ranger, as Robert M. Utley reveals, fits into neither category of specialist.
Utley, the premier historian of our military frontier, somehow neglects to quote the famous description of Ranger prowess. But he has no truck with p.c. and refreshingly meets “challenges of nomenclature” by noting that blacks “will be called blacks, not African Americans,” while logically terming “Mexicans” all those, north or south of the border, called such by white Texans. His apologetic, convenient use of the term “Anglo” for such whites, regardless of ethnicity, is less historical, and, as he admits, the very title Lone Star Justice misleads; until 1874, Texas Rangers were citizen soldiers—sporadically mobilized, given such formal titles as “mounted riflemen,” and defining “a tradition rather than an institution.” Only after the Civil War did crime-fighting eclipse Indian-fighting, producing a legend of frontier civilizers and evenhanded lawmen. Utley gamely explores the truth behind myth and counter myth, challenging the revisionist image depicting ruthless Indian-killers and gringo terrorizers of innocent Mexicans.
Comanche Indian raids against American colonists in Texas spurred the creation of a force to patrol or “range” the frontier, and the first rangers were apparently ten men enlisted in 1823. In 1835, before Texas’s war of independence, the provisional government established the legend’s “formal beginnings” by authorizing a Corps of Rangers whose members, in best militia fashion, furnished their own horses, arms, and clothing. Such was the magic of the name “Ran-
ger” that subsequent volunteer bands bore it even when their government had not bothered to authorize the title—and a Confederate cavalry regiment borrowed it in riding to war as “Terry’s Texas Rangers,” even while volunteers in state service remained to protect the frontier.
The Comanches, like the slaveholding, bellicose “Texians” they fought for decades, did not feel other people’s pain so much as enjoy it, with war, their great obsession, “indiscriminately falling on everyone, from infants to old people of both sexes, by rape, pillage, torture, brutal treatment of captives, and frightful butchery of the dead.” At an 1840 council, they nonchalantly returned a captive whose nose had been burned off by periodic (and, to her captors, amusing) applications of fire as she slept. The enraged Texans, hoping to seize the assembled chiefs as hostages and free other captives, ended by slaughtering them; volunteers raised to meet the inevitable revenge raids were called “Rangers,” whatever their official designation.
Skilled riders and plainsmen, lacking flags or uniforms, the Rangers faced a mounted foe able to loose a hail of arrows for every shot from a Ranger’s muzzle-loading rifle. But the Rangers discovered a newfangled weapon ideal for mounted fighting, and, in 1844, 14 men under Capt. John Coffey “Jack” Hays used five-shooting Colt revolvers in a gory rout of an estimated 70 Comanches. Extracting the best from such fiercely independent volunteers required such leaders as Hays, for, as Utley notes, “Texas fighting men could be led but not commanded.” Their military shortcomings were perhaps the vices that accompanied frontier virtues, which included a breathless self-confidence and deadly marksmanship. Before one 1842 clash against Mexican regulars, a Ranger minister’s inspirational remarks concluded, prophetically, “Let us shoot low, and my impression before God is, that we shall win this fight.” But at the Dawson massacre, dramatizing the citizen soldier’s “proclivity for self-destruction,” rangers clamored for battle over their leader’s better judgment, only to be slaughtered. Even here, individual Texans proved themselves, if not quite soldiers, then magnificent fighters. A “Hurculean” (sic) slave traveling with the Rangers to free his master from Mexican captivity, his last weapon a mesquite limb, inspired his slayers’ admiration by rejecting offers of quarter, while a wounded Ranger, charged by a lancer after trying to surrender, disarmed him, ran him through, and escaped on the lancer’s horse.
The Mexican War gave the Rangers, now state volunteers in an American army, national fame and reinforced their fighting reputation. “Boys,” shouted a mortally wounded Ranger at Monterrey, “place me behind that ledge of rock and give me my revolver, I will do some executing on them yet before I die.” General Zachary Taylor lamented their “licentious” indiscipline, but, short of cavalry, tolerated his two Ranger regiments despite their “shameful atrocities.” Festooned with weapons and cherishing grudges from massacres at Goliad and the Alamo, Rangers delighted journalists with their outlandish dress and appalled Army officers with their excesses, such as avenging a Mexican butchery of American teamsters by slaughtering the men of a small village. One Army regular declared, “The Mexicans dread the Texians more than they do the devil, and they have good reason for it.” But even Los Diablos Tejanos yielded to a plea that they not dishonor Texas by murdering the infamous Santa Anna at war’s end.
Indian warfare highlighted the shortcomings of regular troops. “Give us Rangers in Texas,” urged Sam Houston, arguing that one regiment, federally subsidized, could allow U.S. forces to withdraw. Even when the source of financing was uncertain, however, governors repeatedly summoned Rangers into temporary service. Capt. John Salmon “Rip” Ford paid tribute to an already solid tradition after a stunning 1858 victory over the Comanches, proclaiming his men’s right “to be recognized as Texas Rangers of the old stamp.” With Indian warfare persisting after the Civil War, Texas sold “Frontier Defense Bonds” and revived the Rangers in 1870.
This permanent “Frontier Battalion” was both a disciplined military force and a professional state law-enforcement arm, though it was a separate organization, “McNelly’s Rangers”—formally Company A, Volunteer Militia of Washington County—that would fight most ferociously against crime. Capt. Leander McNelly’s methods for suppressing banditry included “half-hanging” to extract intelligence and dumping the corpses of 15 slain bandidos in Brownsville’s public square. He apparently defined “bandits” somewhat loosely, however, and, in their famous invasion of Mexico, Rangers shot down a number of supposed rustlers before learning that they had struck the wrong ranch. (Small wonder producers of a recent film on McNelly’s men gutted their initial script, erasing Mexican villains and anachronistically inserting a black Ranger.)
Other Ranger lawmen quickly made their reputation, extraditing pistolero John Wesley Hardin from Florida (“Texas, by God!” cried Hardin, seeing the drawn Colt shortly slammed up against his skull), and killing train robber Sam Bass. Lesser achievements included, at least on occasion, dubiously claiming that shooting victims had “attempted to escape” or securing a “Ranger conviction” by shooting to death a wounded suspect.
Utley’s portrait is inevitably less flattering than Walter Prescott Webb’s 1935 classic The Texas Rangers, with its tacit acceptance of its heroes’ methods and racial attitudes. Both authors record the stirring motto of Capt. William B. McDonald, ultimately carved on his tombstone: “No man in the wrong can stand up a fellow that’s in the right and keeps on a-comin’.” But unlike Webb, who, without comment, quotes his hero addressing black soldiers (accused in 1906 of murdering Brownsville citizens) as “niggers,” Utley regards McDonald’s role in the infamous “Brownsville affair” as bigoted and self-righteous. Yet he is also skeptical of the sweeping revisionist portrait of Rangers as cowards and gun-planting murderers—even noting that Mexicans sometimes blamed other lawmen’s sins on the too-fabled “rinches.”
Utley, who is completing a second volume, expertly sorts out the Rangers’ administrative and legislative history up to 1910. But he readily acknowledges that he omits many episodes familiar to aficionados, and these colorful tales leave me wishing for more. Obvious crimes and atrocities aside, Utley’s honest portrayal of old-fashioned attitudes may disturb readers quick to impose modern values on the past—though, given the chance, old Rangers would surely puzzle over modern notions of having soldiers “fight” terrorism by patrolling airports with unloaded rifles. Perhaps, as Barbara Tuchman did in contemplating England’s fierce Black Prince, we should ask why such men became heroes in their own time before asking why we still find them compelling, as Larry McMurtry fans can testify. Is it because our cherished values of toleration require bolstering by older virtues, prized by Comanche and Ranger alike? In a new century, when ordinary citizens have become both targets and impromptu warriors, we might well heed C.L. Sonnichsen, whose classic study of Texas feuds found, amidst their horrors, grim comfort in the feudists’ courage. Sonnichsen did not glamorize the violent past: “But there is one thing we can all be certain of—as long as this country lasts, there will be times when we need a man who will die before he will run.”
[Lone Star Justice: The First Century of the Texas Rangers, by Robert M. Utley (New York: Oxford University Press) 416 pp., $30.00]
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